Determining Our Own Destiny in Palestine and Beyond

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From the Refugee Camp to the United States

Gene Zaid, 2018.

Gene Zaid, 2018.

I was born in Jalazone Refugee Camp in 1951 (north of Ramallah in the West Bank). My parents came from a village near Lod called Beit Nabala but became refugees along with my grandparents, uncles and aunts after the 1948 war. My family now lives in refugee camps throughout the West Bank and in Jordan. When I was very young, my Dad was able to get a job with the Jordanian Department of Agriculture in a low level position and quickly move us out of the refugee camp. He did what he had to do to provide for us. We lived in a small two room house in Jerusalem that had no electricity, no running water, an outdoor bathroom and no kitchen. It was like we were camping our whole lives!

Growing up, I had a deep connection to the refugee camps, especially in the West Bank because it wasn’t very far from Jerusalem. On holidays, weddings and funerals we always went to the camps and saw family. The refugee camps in the early days, of what I can remember, were pretty desperate. My recollection is that when we would go see my grandparents, aunts and uncles, they wouldn’t have enough food, so we would always have to go to UNRWA and stand in line to get a bowl of soup. Life was not very pleasant. It was harsh.

Over some time the camps went from tents to cinder blocks. But no one had running water, electricity, heat, or indoor plumbing. Bathrooms in the camp were public, one for men, one for women and out in the open. It was pretty awful, but let me put it this way, people were living with hope that someday they would be able to go back to their country. Sadly, that did not happen for us.

I went to public schools in Jerusalem from first grade all the way through high school. At 17, I traveled to Kansas in the United States to study chemistry. I didn’t know anyone and it was a one way ticket! After college, my first job was at Boeing while going to graduate school. Soon there were layoffs in the aircraft industry so I immediately went into the meatpacking business. It was the only job available and I worked as a chemist with tallow (animal fats), oils and other things like that. Ironically, the inedible tallow that they were making at the company reminded me of the same stuff we used to get from the UN in the camps. We would get flour, lard and other food like it. So I immediately recognized it.

After meatpacking, I worked in the salt business and moved to Sterling, Kansas. My wife at the time and I had three children together in Sterling, two boys and one girl. One son is now a lawyer, the other is a doctor and my daughter is a psychologist.

Determining My Own Destiny

After years working for other companies I started my own chemical company since I wanted to determine my destiny. I started an oil and gas company and traveled to the Middle East a lot while learning more about the wider Arab world. I then focused my business in the United States, built a company and sold it. Now I am able to devote my time to working on a new cancer treatment utilizing a plant that grows in Palestine called Arum palaestinum or in Arabic, Loof. Loof is a weed that grows wild around Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and other places in Palestine.

I took the plant over here, extracted it, tested it tried to figure out why it works to alleviate the symptoms of cancer and why my people use it. I was able to identify its active ingredients and synthesize them to develop a drug that has now been approved by the FDA to start human clinical trials for phase one. It’s a pretty big accomplishment and I am thankful it worked out. The trials begin sometime in January 2019 and I hope to make this drug available to my people as well as the world.

Both of my parents have passed away, but I still have a sister and brother, as well as nieces and nephews that live in Jerusalem. A majority of my extended relatives live in refugee camps in the Ramallah area and also in Jordan. When my parents were alive, I would go home to Palestine pretty frequently. Whenever I land in Tel Aviv and ride the taxi from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, I breathe the air and tears start flowing. This is my home. This is my country. That will never be forgotten.

Why I Give to Anera

I first heard about Anera when I received a flyer. I don’t remember who or where I got it, but I started reading about the organization and realized it is a serious relief and development organization dedicated to helping Palestinians throughout the Middle East. I remember it showed a young kid, maybe 5 or 6 years old and there was text that asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” followed by the young boy saying in quotes, “I want to drive a cement truck!” That flyer touched my heart in a big way.

Even a 5 year-old can be thinking about construction and building, it’s within us Palestinian people. We are hardworking, we look to the future, we want to build. Even that kid was given the message that he wants to drive a cement truck so he can help build the country from destruction. So that is when I started paying attention and donating to Anera. It was quite a moving experience.

As I follow Anera’s work, I can see there continues to be a lot of need in Palestine. That is why I think it’s important to be involved with Anera. I just hope and pray that one day we will have the freedom to determine our own destiny and have a country of our own, where we can live in peace with everyone and so our people can prosper.